By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
It was yet another season of ritual darkness, briefly interrupted by moments of blindly light for the 2016/2017 Philadelphia 76ers. For a brief moment a plant sprouted from the seeds of planned futility. This year offered a Twitter All-Star push for oft-injured center Joel Embiid, an unforeseen expeditious decline of forward Jahlil Okafor and the authoritative announcement of arrival for forward Dario Saric. All occurring in what amounted to yet another losing season.
Folks can argue the significance of the “moral victories” they choose to applaud and the “emotional growth” they have chosen to relish in. But the bottom line is Philadelphia will end another season, making that 7 out of their last 10, under .500.
When will it end?
Nevertheless with any team there are players whose effort, even in losing, is worthy of note. Even if the team they play for is worthy of execution at times. As the season comes to a merciful end, questions are sure to mount regarding the direction of the franchise. Who should stay and who should seek employment elsewhere? Will this be Ben Simmons’ team or Joel Embiid’s team? Most of all when will wins return to Philly basketball?
However, for the moment those questions will be brushed aside to celebrate the “untriumphant” effort of the individuals on the current roster.
Teammate of the Year: Richaun Holmes
As a second round pick Richaun Holmes has slightly exceeded expectations, but as a teammate the forward has shattered those expectations. Early in the season Holmes, whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season, was essentially punished for being a second round pick. The forward was benched (13 DNP-CD) and his minutes were surrendered to center Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric. However, the Bowling Green State University product never publicly complained, rather he patiently waited for his number to be called.
Once that number was called the center/forward performed. From 18 points against the Los Angeles Clippers and specifically two-time All-Defense center DeAndre Jordan to 25 points against the Atlanta Hawks and former Defensive Player of the Year winner Dwight Howard, Holmes stepped up when given the time. The young man earned the minutes that were taken away from him early on, but decided to put the growth of the team ahead of his personal desires.
That is what being a great teammate all about.
Rookie of the Year: Dario Saric
Is there really any other choice here? The season opened up with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot as possible options but ended with Saric either being the last man standing or having a bigger statistical impact.
Saric’s best ability has been availability, and on a roster where turned ankles morph into season-ending surgeries Dario was a welcomed nightly sight. When the season commenced it was Simmons and Embiid who were being counted on to bring the Sixers back to relevancy, but both of their seasons were destroyed by injuries. Fellow rookie Luwawu-Cabarrot has played well recently, but it is clear Saric has been the better player from start to finish.
The former EuroLeague star’s points per game have risen almost nine points (10.8 to 18.5) since the All-Star break. Equally as impressive is the forward’s rise through the ranks. Earlier in the year players complained about a lack of minutes, while other players offered their opinion on who should be playing and when. Yet, the Croatian never joined the fray and instead just kept swimming. The rookie decided to simply remain focused on the things he could control, and in “the process” outlasted all chirping parties.
Saric’s confidence and feel for the game has gotten better as the year goes on, and has provided reason for optimism.
Most Improved Player: T.J. McConnell
There are surprises and then there are what T.J. McConnell accomplished this season. The Arizona product went from fringe NBA player to desired asset, such a climb is a testament to McConnell’s desire, character and hard work. The guard started 17 of 81 games last season, yet through sheer determination tripled that 17 game total and started a whopping 51 games this season. At the beginning of the year such an accession seemed extremely unlikely.
With Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless joining the roster via free agency and Ben Simmons playing the role as “Messiah” McConnell’s days in Philly seemed numbered. However, injuries and the sheer ability of availability paved the way for an unlikely prosperous season for T.J. No one would confuse the Sixers season as a success, but the little point guard who couldn’t……….spent the entire season proving he could.
The undrafted floor general has given life to an improbable NBA career, and with so many setbacks taking place this season it was enjoyable to which McConnell take a step forward.
Defensive Player of the Year: Robert Covington
There is no more subjective award in the NBA than the Defensive Player of the Year. For seasons upon seasons Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward LeBron James was the best defensive player in the league, but was often overlooked for whatever the reason may be. That said the awarding of Covington does not fall into this realm.
The Tennessee State alum is more effort than accomplishment, but such is the case with most of the 76ers roster. What makes Covington the winner here is not where the forward lies in the more celebrated defensive accomplishments (blocks, deflections, steals, and defensive rebounding), instead it is his traditional on-the-ball defense. Opponents shoot about 46 percent on 2-point field goals when defended by Covington.
To put that number in perspective Golden State Warriors’ forward Draymond Green allows 44 percent and San Antonio Spurs’ forward Kawhi Leonard allows 48 percent, both are considered top defenders at the small forward position. Conversely, noted two way small forwards Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (53 percent) and Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls (50 percent) have not experienced similar success on the defensive end.
This output, combined with being first in deflections per (4.2), fourth in steals per (1.9) and 11th in totals steals (127) is why Robert is the winner here.
Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid
Yes Dario Saric could be the winner here, but it is difficult to say anyone who played in 82 games and yielded a record of 28 – 54 is truly valuable. Furthermore, the year quickly went from who “was” on the floor to who “was not” on the floor. Saric’s durability and availability should be commended but Joel Embiid was the story of the season from start to finish.
Embiid’s presence and then abrupt departure turned a year of promise into yet another year of pain, and that in a nutshell is what an MVP does. There was the All-Star push which galvanized not just Philly, but also the basketball world. The Cameroonian was the topic du jour whether he was playing or not.
The center also indirectly put an end to the “Trust the Process” era that had overtaken Philadelphia. The patience that many displayed before Embiid’s third season ending injury is now either plausible deniability or reluctant sensibility. Regardless the hope now is in moving forward. The end of the #trusttheprocess movement and acceptance of its failure by most if not all is worthy alone of the award.
The former Kansas JayHawk was worth the wait and the numbers he put up were dazzling to watch. The center scored 20 or more points in 19 of 31 games, blocked two or more shots in 26 of 31 games all while making at least one three pointer in 21 of 31 games. Yes sir the 7-footer is special……when healthy.
The fact remains he has not been and more than likely never will be. Embiid showed the Philadelphia basketball world that there are no gimmicks in talent evaluation and the process evolves "who" your franchise selects not "where" they select. Fans now understand if your chief talent evaluator cannot identify talent it doesn’t matter where your pick falls, and for that Joel is the real M.V.P.
BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
Previously written on July 30, 2015
Philadelphia 76ers’ General Manager Sam Hinkie and 76ers’ fans need 2014 first round selection Dario Saric to be an impact player. Unfortunately, history and the play of the Croatian forward do not appear to be cooperating with those needs.
To be clear there is a gargantuan difference between an impact player and a special player. It is virtually impossible to uncover a special player.
This should not surprise anyone, as the list of European players that were supposed to be “special” is significantly shorter than the list of European players that were “special”.
Now Philly basketball fans would LOVE if the Euro enigma could morph into a fundamental piece to a legitimate championship puzzle. An impact reminiscent of champions like current Chicago Bulls’ center/forward Pau Gasol and Dallas Mavericks’ legend Dirk Nowitzki.
That bar may be too high. However, is it too much to ask for the 2010 and 2011 FIBA Young Player of the Year to be an instrumental cog to a perennial championship contender? Perhaps a career on par with former Portland Trail Blazer center Arvydas Sabonis or San Antonio Spurs’ guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Nowitizki and Gasol (some might argue Parker as well) would classify as that special player NBA general managers salivate over. Players who have fulfilled the potential foreseen in their early age. It is unjust and downright irresponsible to believe Dario will have that type of NBA career.
But if you are the 76ers’ General Manager, it might take that type of career to justify making such a selection.
One of the litany of issues surrounding Saric, who has been playing professional basketball since 2009, will be the pedigree that European players have established in the NBA. A pedigree that is significantly heightened based on where they are selected in the draft.
The success of the aforementioned players has created this careen to find the next great overseas sensation. In that pursuit there has been an abundance of atrocities selected.
From 1999 (the year after Nowitzki was selected) to 2013 there have been 68 international players selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Of that 68, four have played in an All-Star game.
Now a player does not have to be an All-Star to have an impact on their perspective club.
Unless, they were selected 12th overall, mentioned in the same accord as a Hall-of-Famer and were sold as an intricate part of a rebuilding effort.
Under those circumstances, the impact of say Mehmet Okur, Detlef Schrempf and Hedo Turkolglu will not suffice. In fact, the impact of irreplaceable cog such as Boris Diaw and Toni Kukoc would not be ideal.
Yes, each of those players were/are contributing members of their clubs. Yet, none impacted their clubs enough to warrant being selected 12th overall.
For example, the Dallas Mavericks selected Schrempf eighth overall in the 1985 draft. The 6’9 German forward started a whopping 22 games in slightly over three seasons with the Mavs, before being shipped to Indiana.
This brings us back to the 76ers and their Euro phenom. Just what type of impact can Sixer fans expect from the player Hinkie described to sports writer Mark Sielski in 2014 as “a warrior and a champion at all the junior levels of competition,"
Based on where Saric was selected and the morbid state of the franchise, the Sixers must receive a return on their investment.
Simply put the higher the pick the higher the expectation.
These expectations are tapered because it is difficult to assess just where the forward is in his development. European basketball is completely different than American ball.
In Europe, ball movement is king and rarely does a player break away from the offense to go “dolo” or for theirs. Therefore, gauging Dario’s offensive output most be put in context. Also, the NBA game is as much about the immeasurable, such as heart and toughness, as it is about talent and skill.
Nevertheless Saric’s numbers are less then overwhelming playing against inferior talent.
In the Turkish Basketball League (TBL) Dario’s Anadolu Efes club went 28 – 13 losing to Pinar Karsiyaka in the TBL Finals 4 games to 1. The forward posted 10.9 ppg on 47 percent shooting with 6.7 rpg, 2.6 apg to go with 2.0 tpg for the season.
The Croatian’s numbers were similar in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague, 9.9 ppg on 43 percent shooting with 6.4 rpg, 2.3 apg to go with 1.9 tpg. However, the team finished 13 – 15.
Again, it is virtually impossible to assess what type of impact the 12th overall selection will have in the NBA solely based on statistics. The European game is drastically different from the NBA game. So the lack of eye popping statistics should not be discouraging.
What should be taken into significant consideration is how the forward performed when facing NBA level talent (no matter how fringe the talent). More importantly if Dario’s skill set will be one of consequence in the league.
The EuroLeague appears to have the tougher of competition and also is where Saric’s squad seemed to struggle going 13 – 15. NBA veterans like MarShon Brooks and Andrew Goudelock were stars in that league. Yet, Rudy Fernandez and Andres Nocioni were able to stifle Saric in the playoffs and secure the championship for Real Madrid.
This was far from the talent level Saric would see in the NBA on a nightly basis, and the results vary depending on where you sit on the Hinkie train.
Some will flip the numbers to portray the forward in a good light while others can use them to justify the disdain for the selection. Regardless, there is not one thing that suggests the Croatian forward will have an impact of any consequence in the league.
A hope that Dario will be different than most of his predecessors.
A hope that the forward will buck the norm and bask in the exception.
There are times in life where hope is abruptly interrupted by reality, and at this moment 76ers’ fans need not pardon this interruption.
The hope was Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric would be the nucleus that could return the Sixers to their days of prominence.
That hope has been dashed by an MCW trade, Nerlens’ “delicate” offensive game, and the news of Embiid’s incessant foot issues.
All that is left from four picks in two years, none lower than 12th is Dario Saric.
Yes, the most recent selection of former Duke forward/center Jahlil Okafor seems set to pay off immediately. In the form of on the floor production. It is the fourth and final first round selection from year two of the process that may be too much to overlook.
One of those four picks should have yielded at least one perennial all-star.
Four picks in the top 12 should have given the Philly faithful at least one player that flashes dominance and energizes a fan base.
Identifying assets and value is pure analytics and can be taught to anyone who loves basketball.
Identifying talent is a blessing and can never be taught.
Championship basketball has never been rooted numbers, but rather invested in talent. What does it matter if a team has seven first round picks if those picks do not translate to on the court production?
NBA drafts have a way of exposing General Managers, and while circumstances can drastically effect the career of a selection. It seems RC Buford, Sam Presti, Ernie Grunfeld, Jerry West and to a lesser extent Larry Bird and Jerry Krause rarely get exposed.
Conversely, other G.Ms seem to always find themselves talking numbers and not production. This routinely puts their franchises in the position of having to overcome those self-inflicted circumstances.